Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday declined an offer from the Pierce County prosecutor to work concurrently on the investigation of the death of Manuel Ellis — a Black man killed by Tacoma police in March while being restrained — preferring instead to review the case after the county prosecutor has made her decisions on whether to charge officers.
The refusal from Ferguson is the latest in a back and forth between state officials and Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett over how a state review of Ellis’ death should be conducted.
Robnett on Monday offered Ferguson “concurrent jurisdiction” in the case, inviting Ferguson and the Washington State Patrol to attend a briefing where the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office and the county medical examiner will present their findings.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee, who last week pledged an independent state review of Ellis’ death, said he preferred that Ferguson’s review take place after the county completes its investigation.
Robnett criticized that decision, saying the state authorities should immediately be given concurrent jurisdiction.
“In the interests of justice, the Attorney General’s review should begin now. There is simply no reason to wait,” Robnett said in a statement Monday. “To delay the Washington State Patrol review and delay Attorney General review is not in the interests of justice.”
Ferguson, however, said that attending the briefing and working together would compromise the independence of his investigation.
“I committed to the Governor that I would provide that independent review,” Ferguson wrote to Robnett Monday. “Independence is lost if our offices are working ‘concurrently.'”
He said his office would act “with urgency” to complete the review, once Robnett has made a charging decision.
“Reviewing the same evidence in no way compromises anyone’s independence,” Robnett said in response. “And if new evidence comes in, that evidence should be evaluated by the attorney general and my office.”
Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said their decision is not based on a mistrust of Robnett, but that they disagree with the process.
“We did the same thing in a case in Pasco several years ago,” by conducting an investigation after local authorities had finished theirs, Lee wrote in an email. “We know there is well-meaning intent behind this proposal, it could be interpreted as a process that lacks the strict and unequivocal independence of review that this situation deserves.”
The Tacoma Action Collective, an activist group, staged a small rally on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia on Monday, demanding a fully independent investigation, not simply a review of the work done by Pierce County law enforcement.
“An independent investigation needs to be done by the attorney general, we don’t need any police officers investigating other police officers,” Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said. She was speaking to David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, who came to meet with protesters.
“I’m telling you right now, if something doesn’t happen you’re looking at another Minneapolis,” Carter-Mixon said. “The governor needs to stop doing wordplay and playing games.”
Postman said that the attorney general’s office isn’t set up to do these types of investigations without help from police.
“We turned to the only police force that we have that works for the governor,” Postman said. “And that’s the Washington State Patrol. Going forward, you’re right, there needs to be independence.”
Later on Monday, Inslee announced a proposal for a new, independent state body devoted to investigating police killings.
State law allows both the governor and the county prosecutor to grant the attorney general concurrent jurisdiction in an investigation.
Ellis died after being arrested and restrained by Tacoma police on March 3. In a video shot by a bystander that became public last week, Ellis can be seen falling on his back, struggling with officers on top of him. “Oh my God, stop hitting him, just arrest him,” the woman filming the video yells.
The medical examiner has ruled the case a homicide, concluding that Ellis died from a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. The medical examiner’s report also listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as factors in his death.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards last week directed the city manager to fire the four officers involved and called for them to be prosecuted to “the fullest extent of the law.”
Robnett said she has also invited Woodards to attend the investigative briefing, and that the mayor will attend.
Robnett’s office said the investigative briefing is scheduled for Wednesday, but that is subject to change.